Archive for the ‘Wal-Mart’ Category

Court Dismisses Wal-Mart Shareholder FCPA-Related Derivative Claims

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

DismissedIn the aftermath of Wal-Mart’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act scrutiny, certain company shareholders (as is fairly typical in instances of FCPA scrutiny) filed derivative actions against various current or former Wal-Mart officers and directors alleging, among other things, breach of fiduciary duties.

By way of background as to derivative claims, the internal affairs of a corporation, such as the rights of corporate directors, are governed by state law.  State law, including most prominently Delaware law, provides directors broad discretion to manage the corporation subject to their fiduciary duties to the corporation and its shareholders.  A director’s fiduciary duties include the duty of care and the duty of loyalty, including its subsidiary component the duty of good faith.

A corporate director’s duty of good faith has evolved over time to include an obligation to attempt in good faith to assure that an adequate corporate information and reporting system exists.  In the notable Caremark decision by the influential Delaware Court of Chancery, the court held that a director’s failure to do so, in certain circumstances, may give rise to individual director liability for breach of fiduciary duty.

In Stone v. Ritter, the Delaware Supreme Court provided the following necessary conditions for director oversight liability under the so-called Caremark standard: (i) a director utterly failed to implement any reporting or information system or controls; or (ii) having implemented such systems or controls, a director failed to monitor or oversee the corporation’s operations. The court held that both situations require a showing that a director knew that they were not discharging their fiduciary obligations and courts have widely recognize that a director’s good faith exercise of oversight responsibility may not necessarily prevent employees from violating criminal laws or from causing the corporation to incur significant financial liability or both.

Derivative claims, such as those filed against Wal-Mart’s current and former officers and directors, are subject to unique pleading requirements.  Ordinarily, a company’s board of directors has the exclusive authority to institute corporate action such as filing a lawsuit on behalf of the corporation when it has been harmed.  However, when the harm to the corporation is the result of an alleged breach of fiduciary duty by the directors, the law recognizes that the board of directors is unlikely to sue itself in such a situation.  Thus, the law provides a mechanism for shareholders to bring a lawsuit, not in their individual capacity, but on behalf of the corporation to recover monetary damages for the corporation.

Because a derivative action usurps a traditional board of director function and can be subject to harassment and abuse, state law often requires shareholders to first make a demand on the corporation to file suit or to plead with particularity so-called demand futility, meaning that demand on the board would be futile because the board is incapable of making an independent judgment concerning the conduct at issue.

Most derivative actions, including those in the FCPA context, are brought as demand futility cases because if a shareholder makes a demand on the board of directors to bring the claim it will be assumed that the shareholder views the board of directors as sufficiently independent to analyze the claim and the board’s decision will be analyzed under the board-friendly business judgment rule.  To survive a motion to dismiss, a shareholder pleading demand futility must allege more than conclusory allegations regarding a breach of fiduciary duty.  Rather, the shareholder must allege with particularly facts suggesting that the majority of directors were interested; or that the directors failed to inform themselves; or that the directors failed to exercise due care as to the conduct at issue.

Those who predicted that the Wal-Mart derivative actions would set a new standard for director liability were once again proven wrong (see here for the prior post).

Earlier this week, in this order U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey (W.D. Ark.) dismissed eight Wal-Mart shareholder FCPA-related derivative claims that were consolidated into one action.

Judge Hickey summarized the shareholders allegations as follows.

“Plaintiffs allege that the Individual Defendants breached their fiduciary duties of loyalty and good faith by: (1) permitting violations of foreign and federal laws and Wal-Mart’s code of ethics; (2) permitting the obstruction of an adequate investigation of known potential (and/or actual) violations of foreign and federal laws; and (3) covering up (or attempting to cover up) known potential (and/or actual) violations of foreign and federal laws. Plaintiffs also allege that Individual Defendants violated Sections 14(a) and 29(b) of the Exchange Act by causing Wal-Mart to make false or misleading statements in its April 2010 and April 2011 proxy materials relating to annual director elections.”

After reviewing applicable Delaware law, Judge Hickey stated, in pertinent part, as follows.

“The Complaint consistently implies that Defendants should have or must have known about the alleged misconduct by virtue of their positions and the supposed reporting structure at Wal-Mart. According to Plaintiffs, “senior executives … knew about” the alleged misconduct, those “executives [were] required to regularly report to the Audit Committee of Wal-Mart’s Board,” and the Audit Committee, in turn, “was obligated to report on [this] to Wal-Mart’s full Board.” Plaintiffs allege that, given the “inference” that information concerning bribery was reported to Wal-Mart’s Board, Wal-Mart made a conscious decision not to act on this information.

Plaintiffs reference vague “decisions” made by Defendants but do not plead with particularity who made these decisions, how these decisions were made, or when the decisions were made. Plaintiffs generally allege that the Board made a decision not to act in response to evidence of criminal conduct. Missing from the Complaint are any particularized facts that link a majority of the Director Defendants to any actual decision. Plaintiffs point to no alleged meeting, discussion, or vote where the Board allegedly made one of these decisions. This lack of such particularized facts regarding a conscious decision about how or whether to respond to the alleged misconduct indicates that an analysis under Aronson is inappropriate.”

Elsewhere, Judge Hickey stated:

“According to Plaintiffs, nine Director Defendants knew about the wrongful conduct in 2005-2006 (the alleged bribery in Mexico and the internal investigation that allegedly concealed the wrongdoing) and either actively participated in it or acquiesced in it. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have failed to sufficiently plead that a majority of the Board knew about or consciously ignored the alleged wrongful conduct in 2005-2006 and therefore cannot show that a majority of the Director Defendants face a substantial likelihood of personal liability. The Court agrees.

Nothing in the Complaint suggests any particularized basis to infer that a majority of the Board had actual or constructive knowledge of the alleged misconduct, let alone that they acted improperly with scienter. Plaintiffs’ allegations do not provide the particulars for what each Director Defendant knew, how he or she learned of the information, or when he or she learned of the information. Thus, as discussed below, Plaintiffs have failed to plead with particularity that at least eight Director Defendants face a substantial likelihood of personal liability so that their ability to consider a demand impartially would be compromised.”

[...]

“Courts may not impute knowledge of wrongdoing to directors simply because they serve on the board or because the corporate governance structure requires that notice of the wrongdoing reach the board.”

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In a footnote, Judge Hickey’s order states: “The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits United States companies from bribing foreign officials to secure improper business advantage.”

This is an inaccurate statement of law.

Rather, the FCPA contains an “obtain or retain business” element that must be proved.  Indeed, the DOJ’s position that the FCPA captures payments to “secure an improper business advantage” wholly apart from the “obtain or retain business” element has been specifically rejected by courts. (See here for the prior post).

The inaccurate statement of law in the order is perhaps not surprising given that the Judge referred to the FCPA as the “Federal Corrupt Practices Act.”

*****

For additional coverage of Judge Hickey’s decision – as well as its potential impact on current Delaware court proceedings arising from the same alleged facts – see here form the D&O Blog.

Friday Roundup

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Roundup2Wal-Mart related, north of the border, scrutiny alerts and updates, and an issue to watch.

It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Wal-Mart Related

Here is what Wal-Mart said in its recent 4Q FY2015 earnings call.

“FCPA-and compliance-related costs were $36 million in the fourth quarter, comprised of $26 million for the ongoing inquiries and investigations, and $10 million for our global compliance program and organizational enhancements. For the full year, FCPA-and compliance related costs were $173 million, comprised of $121 million for the ongoing inquiries and investigations, and $52 million for our global compliance program and organizational enhancements. Last year, total FCPA-and compliance-related costs were $282 million.”

“In fiscal 2016, we expect our FCPA-related expenses to range between $160 and $180 million.”

Doing the math, Wal-Mart’s 4Q FCPA and compliance-related costs is approximately $563,000 in FCPA-related expenses per working day.

Over the past approximate three years, I have tracked Wal-Mart’s quarterly disclosed pre-enforcement action professional fees and expenses. While some pundits have ridiculed me for doing so, such figures are notable because, as has been noted in prior posts and in my article “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Ripples,” settlement amounts in an actual FCPA enforcement action are often only a relatively minor component of the overall financial consequences that can result from corporate FCPA scrutiny.  Pre-enforcement action professional fees and expenses are typically the largest (in many cases to a degree of 3, 5, 10 or higher than settlement amounts) financial hit to a company under FCPA scrutiny.

While $563,000 per working day remains eye-popping, Wal-Mart’s recent figure suggests that the company’s pre-enforcement action professional fees and expenses have crested as the figures for the past five quarters have been approximately $640,000, $662,000, $855,000, $1.1 million and $1.3 million per working day.

In the aggregate, Wal-Mart’s disclosed pre-enforcement professional fees and expenses are as follows.

FY 2013 = $157 million.

FY 2014 = $282 million.

FY 2015  = $173 million.

FY 2016 = $160 – $180 million (projected)

North of the Border

Yesterday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) announced charges against the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., its division SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc. and its subsidiary SNC-Lavalin International Inc.”  As stated in the release:

“The three entities have been charged with one count of corruption under paragraph 3(1)(b) of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act and one count of fraud under paragraph 380(1)(a) of the Criminal Code.The alleged criminal acts surfaced as part of the ongoing criminal investigation into the company’s business dealings in Lybia.

The charges laid are the following:

In Montreal, Judicial District of Montreal, elsewhere in Canada and abroad

  1. Between on or about August 16, 2001 and on or about September 20, 2011, the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., its division SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc. and its subsidiary SNC-Lavalin International Inc., did, in order to obtain or retain an advantage in the course of business, directly or indirectly give, offer or agree to give or offer a loan, reward, advantage or benefit of any kind of a value of CAN$47,689,868 or more, to one or several public officials of the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” or to any person for the benefit of a public official of the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, to induce these officials to use their positions to influence any acts or decisions of the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” for which they perform their duties or functions, thereby committing an indictable offence contrary to paragraph 3(1)(b) of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act.
  2. Between on or about August 16, 2001 and on or about September 20, 2011, the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., its division SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc. and its subsidiary SNC-Lavalin International Inc. did, by deceit, falsehood or other fraudulent means, whether or not it is a false pretense within the meaning of theCriminal Code, defraud the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, the “Management and Implementation Authority of the Great Man Made River Project” of Libya, the “General People’s Committee for Transport Civil Aviation Authority” of Libya, Lican Drilling Co Ltd, and the “Organization for Development of Administrative Centers” of Benghazi in Libya of property, money or valuable security or service of a value of approximately CAN$129,832,830, thereby committing an indictable offence contrary to paragraph 380(1)(a) of the Criminal Code.”

In the release, Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud, Commanding Officer of the RCMP’s National Division, stated: “Corruption of foreign officials undermines good governance and sustainable economic development. The charges laid today demonstrate how the RCMP continues to support Canada’s international commitments and safeguard its integrity and reputation.”

Upon being charged, SNC-Lavalin issued this release which states in full as follows.

“SNC-Lavalin was informed that federal charges have been laid by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., SNC-Lavalin International Inc. and SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc. Each entity has been charged with one count of fraud under section 380 of the Criminal Code of Canada and one count of corruption under Section 3(1)(b) of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act. SNC-Lavalin firmly considers that the charges are without merit and will vigorously defend itself and plead not guilty in the interest of its current employees, families, partners, clients, investors and other stakeholders.

“The charges stem from the same alleged activities of former employees from over three years ago in Libya, which are publicly known, and that the company has cooperated on with authorities since then,” stated Robert G. Card, President and CEO, SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. “Even though SNC-Lavalin has already incurred significant financial damage and losses as a result of actions taken prior to March 2012, we have always been and remain willing to reach a reasonable and fair solution that promotes accountability, while permitting us to continue to do business and protect the livelihood of our over 40,000 employees, our clients, our investors and our other stakeholders.”

It is important to note that companies in other jurisdictions, such as the United States and United Kingdom, benefit from a different approach that has been effectively used in the public interest to resolve similar matters while balancing accountability and securing the employment, economic and other benefits of businesses.

These charges relate to alleged reprehensible deeds by former employees who left the company long ago. If charges are appropriate, we believe that they would be correctly applied against the individuals in question and not the company. The company has and will continue to fully cooperate with authorities to ensure that any individuals who are believed to have committed illegal acts are brought to justice. The company will also consider claims against these individuals to recover any damages the company has suffered as a result.

While the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and the RCMP have selected this as the next formal step in this 3-year old investigation, there is no change to the company’s right and ability to bid or work on any public or private projects.

Becoming a benchmark in ethics and compliance

Over the past three years, we have made significant changes to the company and remained focused on continuous improvements in ethics and compliance. The tone from the top is clear and unequivocal; there is zero tolerance for ethics violations. The individuals alleged to have been involved in past ethical issues are no longer with the company, and a new CEO has changed the face of the executive team. Under the leadership of the Board of Directors, the company has reinforced its Ethics and Compliance program with huge investments in time and money to rapidly make significant and concrete enhancements, including:

  • Creating the position of Chief Compliance Officer, who reports to the board, and hiring world-renowned leaders in compliance
  • Appointing an Independent Monitor recommended by and who reports solely to, the World Bank Group
  • Appointing compliance officers in all of the company’s business units and regional offices worldwide
  • Creating a dedicated Ethics and Compliance team
  • Further reinforcing internal controls and procedures
  • Further reinforcing its Code of Ethics and Ethics and Compliance Hotline
  • Producing a dedicated  Anti-Corruption Manual
  • Offering annual compliance training to all employees, with a special focus on those working in strategic roles
  • Developing and distributing a world-class Business Partners Policy to employees
  • Using an independent third party to screen candidates for senior management positions
Working hard to build a global leader in the engineering and construction industry

Over the past 3 years and while managing issues created by events prior to 2012, we have worked hard to develop and implement a strategy to become a global Tier-1 player and take our place in a consolidating industry. We have taken concrete steps towards a 5-year goal of doubling our size, and we continue to deliver on our strategy. A clear example is the acquisition of Kentz that added 15,000 employees to our oil and gas business, making us a Tier-1 player in this area.

Since 1911, SNC-Lavalin employees have been working with our clients to create world-class projects that improve people’s quality of life and provide value to our clients. We are the only Canadian player among the top engineering and construction firms in the world, ranking as the number one firm in both Canada and Quebec.

“I would like to thank our more than 40,000 employees, clients, shareholders, partners and other stakeholders for their trust and continuing support,” concluded Mr. Card.”

The portion of SNC-Lavalin’s statement highlighted above in bold and underlined is most interesting.

Scrutiny Alerts and Updates

Flowserve

In 2008, Flowserve Corporation and a related entity agreed to pay approximately $10.5 million to resolve DOJ and SEC FCPA enforcement actions concerning conduct in connection with the U.N. Oil for Food Program in Iraq.  As part of the SEC resolution, Flowserve agreed to final judgment permanently enjoining it from future violations of FCPA’s books and records and internal controls provisions.

Earlier this week, Flowserve disclosed as follows.

“The Company has uncovered actions involving an employee based in an overseas subsidiary that violated our Code of Business Conduct and may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Company has terminated the employee, is in the process of completing an internal investigation, and has self-reported the potential violation to the United States Department of Justice and the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. While the Company does not currently believe that this matter will have a material adverse impact on its business, financial condition, results of operations or cash flows, there can be no assurance that the Company will not be subjected to monetary penalties and additional costs.”

Eli Lilly

In December 2012, Eli Lilly agreed to pay $29 million to resolve an SEC FCPA enforcement action based on subsidiary conduct in China, Brazil, Poland, and Russia.  At the time, there was no parallel DOJ action which sent a signal to knowledgeable observers that there would likely not be a parallel DOJ action.

Earlier this week, Eli Lilly made this official when it disclosed:

“In August 2003, we received notice that the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was conducting an investigation into the compliance by Lilly’s Polish subsidiary with the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA). Subsequently, we were notified that the SEC had expanded its investigation to other countries and that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was conducting a parallel investigation. In December 2012, we announced that we had reached an agreement with the SEC to settle its investigation. The settlement relates to certain activities of Lilly subsidiaries in Brazil, China, Poland, and Russia from 1994 through 2009. Without admitting or denying the allegations, we consented to pay a civil settlement amount of $29.4 million and agreed to have an independent compliance consultant conduct a 60-day review of our internal controls and compliance program related to the FCPA. In January 2015, the DOJ advised us that they have closed their investigation into this matter.”

Rolls-Royce

As highlighted here, allegations have surfaced that Rolls-Royce “paid bribes for a contract with Brazilian oil firm Petrobras.” According to the report, “one of the Petrobras informants in the case, received at least $200,000 in bribes from Rolls-Royce, which makes gas turbines for Petrobras oil platforms.”

As noted in the report, “Britain’s Serious Fraud Office is separately investigating Rolls-Royce because of concerns over possible bribery in Indonesia and China.”

As highlighted here and here Rolls-Royce is also under investigation in the U.S. by the DOJ and in 2012 Data Systems & Solutions, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of  Rolls-Royce Holdings, resolved an FCPA enforcement action.

U.K. Sentences

The U.K. Serious Fraud Office recently announced that “two employees of Smith and Ouzman Ltd, a printing company based in Eastbourne, were sentenced … following an SFO investigation into corrupt payments made in return for the award of contracts to the company.” As noted in the release:

Smith and Ouzman Ltd specialises in security documents such as ballot papers and education certificates.  Its chairman, Christopher John Smith, aged 72 from East Sussex, was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years, for two counts of corruptly agreeing to make payments, contrary to section 1(1) of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, to run concurrently. He was also ordered to carry out 250 hours of unpaid work and has been given a three month curfew.

Nicholas Charles Smith, the sales and marketing director of the company, aged 43 from East Sussex, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for three counts of corruptly agreeing to make payments, to run concurrently. The company itself was also convicted of the same three offences and will be sentenced at a later date.

Both men were disqualified from acting as company directors for six years.

Director of the SFO, David Green CB QC commented:

“This case marks the first convictions secured against a corporate for foreign bribery, following a contested trial. The convictions recognise the corrosive impact of such conduct on growth and the integrity of business contracts in the Developing World.”

In passing sentence HHJ Higgins commented:

“Your behaviour was cynical, deplorable and deeply antisocial, suggesting moral turpitude.”

The briberyact.com published in full the Judge’s sentencing remarks.

Issue to Watch

This Wall Street Journal editorial was about Apple’s battle with its corporate monitor in an antitrust action.  While outside the FCPA context, the editorial nevertheless notes:

“Apple might have settled long ago as most corporations do, and that option might even have been cheaper than a protracted appeal. But the company is doing a public service by attempting to vindicate a legal principle and brake the growing abuse of court-appointed monitors and a crank theory of antitrust that will harm many more innovators if it is allowed to stand. If Apple prevails in the Second Circuit, it ought to sue Mr. Bromwich and attempt to disgorge the $2.65 million he has soaked from shareholders.”

*****

A good weekend to all.

Potpourri

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Wal-Mart Related

Here is what Wal-Mart said in its recent 3Q FY 2015 earnings call.

“FCPA and compliance-related costs were approximately $41 million, which represents approximately $30 million for the ongoing inquiries and investigations and approximately $11 million for our global compliance program and organizational enhancements. Last year, FCPA and compliance-related costs were $69 million for the third quarter.  Through the third quarter of this year, we have spent $137 million on FCPA  and compliance-related costs, versus our guidance of between $200 and  $240 million. We expect to be near the low end of the guidance for the full  year.”

Doing the math, that is approximately $640,000 in FCPA-related expenses per working day.

Over the past approximate two years, I have tracked Wal-Mart’s quarterly disclosed pre-enforcement action professional fees and expenses. While some pundits have ridiculed me for doing so, such figures are notable because, as has been noted in prior posts and in my article “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Ripples,” settlement amounts in an actual FCPA enforcement action are often only a relatively minor component of the overall financial consequences that can result from corporate FCPA scrutiny.  Pre-enforcement action professional fees and expenses are typically the largest (in many cases to a degree of 3, 5, 10 or higher than settlement amounts) financial hit to a company under FCPA scrutiny.

While $640,000 per working day remains eye-popping, Wal-Mart’s recent figure suggests that the company’s pre-enforcement action professional fees and expenses have crested as the figures for the past four quarters have been approximately $662,000, $855,000, $1.1 million and $1.3 million per working day.

In the aggregate, Wal-Mart’s disclosed pre-enforcement professional fees and expenses are as follows.

FY 2013 = $157 million.

FY 2014 = $282 million.

FY 2015 (first three quarters) = $137 million.

*****

Another ripple of FCPA scrutiny and enforcement highlighted in “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Ripples” is shareholder litigation in connection with FCPA scrutiny.

On that score, plaintiffs firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP recently sued the SEC in federal court seeking certain documents in the SEC’s possession concerning Wal-Mart’s FCPA scrutiny.  In the complaint, Robbins Geller alleges that the SEC has improperly denied its Freedom of Information Act document requests.  The complaint alleges that the SEC’s reliance on a FOIA exemption concerning documents “compiled for law enforcement purposes” does not apply because the documents sought “were provided by and retained by Walmart, the subject of the SEC investigation, and therefore not “compiled for law enforcement purposes.”

*****

India’s Economic Times reports:

“The Indian arm of American retail giant Walmart has terminated a mid-level manager amid investigations into alleged violations of U.S. anti-bribery laws in the country. Two years ago, when the company was known as Bharti Wal-Mart, it had sacked its chief financial officer and the entire legal team in connection with the same probe. The mid-level manager, who received a termination notice last week, is also required to be available for questioning by the U.S. Department of Justice in the next five years.”

Petrobras

Petrobras, an oil and gas company in Brazil, has been the focus of much recent news.

Recently, the Financial Times reported that the DOJ and SEC have opened investigations into the company and reported that “U.S. authorities are looking into whether Petrobras or its employees, middlemen, or contractors, violated the FCPA.”  It was reported that there is also an open investigation in Brazil and the Financial Times noted that “prosecutors in Brazil allege that Petrobras and its contractors overinflated the cost of capital expenditure projects and acquisitions by hundreds of millions of dollars and paid part of the proceeds to politicians from the ruling Workers’ Party coalition.”  According to the Financial Times, the “ruling coalition politicians received 3 percent of all contracts.”

The apparent FCPA scrutiny of Petrobras is interesting on many levels.

For starters, certain FCPA enforcement actions have involved Petrobras employees – not as a payor of alleged improper payments – but as the recipient of alleged improper payments.  The enforcement theory of course is that the company making the alleged improper payments violated the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions because Petrobras was an alleged “instrumentality” of the Brazilian government and thus Petrobras employees were “foreign officials” under the FCPA.

On the flip side of course is the fact that Petrobras has ADRs listed on a U.S. exchange and thus would be considered by the enforcement agencies to be an “issuer” subject to the FCPA.

In short, the enforcement theory that employees of SOEs are “foreign officials” results in an interesting paradox of sorts should there be an FCPA enforcement action against Petrobras as Petrobras employees would have been on “both sides” of the FCPA – an occurrence that has likely never happened before.  Taking the enforcement theory to its logical conclusion also means that the U.S. government is apparently investigating whether the Brazilian government has engaged in corruption.  A host of legal and policy issues would seem to arise.

Another interesting issue to ponder from Petrobras’s apparent FCPA scrutiny is whether any alleged improper payments by Petrobras – either directly or indirectly through others – to Brazilian officials would truly represent payments to ‘foreign officials.”

As highlighted in this prior post concerning the first FCPA enforcement action against a foreign issuer (albeit not charging violations of the anti-bribery provisions), according to a knowledgeable source at the SEC at the time, there was a belief that there were no “foreign” officials involved because Montedison, an Italian company, allegedly bribed Italian officials.

This dynamic has not been present in other foreign issuer FCPA enforcement actions (for instance Siemens did not allegedly bribe German “officials,” Technip did not allegedly bribe French “officials”, etc.) but would be present in any FCPA enforcement action against Petrobras.

Regarding the potential FCPA scrutiny of Petrobras, it appears that the subject of inquiry concerns potential payments made by third parties on behalf of Petrobras or at least with the knowledge of Petrobras employees.  As I indicated to the Wall Street Journal in this story:

“The vast majority of FCPA enforcement actions are indeed based upon indirect payments. If Petrobras paid an inflated amount to a contractor, the questions will be why, were they aware it was inflated, and what steps did they take to remedy the situation, or did they just accept the inflated amount with an inkling or suspicion that it would go somewhere else?”

More recently, the story continues to evolve and as highlighted in this recent Wall Street Journal article:

“Federal police [in Brazil last week] arrested 18 people, including Renato Duque, former director of engineering and services at Petrobras. Authorities allege he and others were part of a bribery and money-laundering scheme that has siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from the state-owned oil firm into the pockets of employees, contractors and politicians. Police also served dozens of search warrants and raided the offices of 11 companies they suspect of participating in a scam. The companies, which include Brazilian multinationals Odebrecht SA, Camargo Corrêa SA, Construtora OAS SA and others, are suspected of colluding to inflate the costs of work performed for Petrobras. Prosecutors allege some of the resulting profits were funneled to Petrobras executives and high-level politicians, including some members of the president’s ruling Workers’ Party, a charge the party has repeatedly denied.”

As a result of the controversy swirling about the company, Petrobras recently announced that it was “unable to release its third quarter 2014 financial statements at this time.”

Separately, Reuters reported:

“Petrobras said on Monday it had received a subpoena from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission asking for documents relating to an investigation it is pursuing. [...]  Petrobras did not provide details as to what documents the SEC had requested. The company is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. [...] The U.S. investigation, conducted by both the SEC and the DOJ, is “broad” in nature and has been ongoing since at least the start of 2014, the person said.”

In short, the apparent FCPA scrutiny of Petrobras raises several interesting issues worthy of pondering.  Should there be an enforcement action against the company for violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions, it would be historic for the reasons discussed above.

Whistleblower Statistics

The Dodd-Frank Act enacted in July 2010 contained whistleblower provisions applicable to all securities law violations including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  In this prior post from July 2010, I predicted that the new whistleblower provisions would have a negligible impact on FCPA enforcement.  As noted in this prior post, my prediction was an outlier (so it seemed) compared to the flurry of law firm client alerts that predicted that the whistleblower provisions would have a significant impact on FCPA enforcement.  So anxious was FCPA Inc. for a marketing opportunity to sell its compliance services, some even called the generic whistleblower provision the FCPA’s “new” whistleblower provisions.

So far, there has not been any whistleblower award in connection with an FCPA enforcement action.  Given that enforcement actions (from point of first disclosure to resolution) typically take between 2-4 years, it still may be too early to effectively analyze the impact of the whistleblower provisions on FCPA enforcement.

Whatever your view, I previously noted that the best part of the new whistleblower provisions were that its impact on FCPA enforcement can be monitored and analyzed because the SEC is required to submit annual reports to Congress.  Recently, the SEC released (here) its annual report for FY2014.

Of the 3620 whistleblower tips received by the SEC in FY2014, 4.4% (159) related to the FCPA. As noted in this similar post from last year, of the 3,238 whistleblower tips received by the SEC in FY2013, 4.6% (149) related to the FCPA.  As noted in this similar post from 2012, of the 3,001 whistleblower tips received by the SEC in FY2012, 3.8% (115) related to the FCPA.  In FY2011 (a partial reporting year)  3.9% of the 334 tips received by the SEC related to the FCPA.

Yes, in the future there will be a whistleblower award made in the context of an FCPA enforcement action.  Yes, there will be much ink spilled on this occasion and wild predictions about this “new trend.”  Yet, I stand by my prediction – now 4.5 years old, that Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower provisions will have a negligible impact on FCPA enforcement.

FCPA-Related Securities Fraud Claims Against Avon And Former Executives Dismissed … Securities Fraud Claims Against Wal-Mart And Former CEO Go Forward

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

As highlighted in “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Ripples,” although courts have held that the FCPA does not provide a private right of action, plaintiffs’ lawyers representing shareholders often target directors and executive officers of companies subject to FCPA scrutiny with civil suits alleging, among other things, breach of fiduciary duty or securities fraud.

Such claims often follow a predictable pattern. In the days and weeks following an FCPA enforcement action, or even a company disclosing or otherwise being the subject of FCPA scrutiny, purported investigations are launched by plaintiffs’ firms representing shareholders and lawsuits often begin to rain down on the company, its board of directors or executive officers.

Even though such claims rarely survive the motion to dismiss stage, opportunistic plaintiffs’ counsel continue to bring such claims in what is viewed by many as a parasitic attempt to feed off of FCPA scrutiny and enforcement.

The securities fraud lawsuit against Avon Products and Andrea Jung (former Chief Executive Officer) and Charles Cramb (former Chief Financial Strategy Officer) was less worse than a typical suit, yet nevertheless suffered a similar fate.

Earlier this week, Judge Paul Gardephe (S.D.N.Y.) dismissed the claims.

The putative class action was brought on behalf of purchasers of Avon’s stock between July 2006 and October 2011 and the complaint alleged that Avon, Jung and Cramb issued materially false and misleading statements concerning Avon’s compliance with the FCPA in violation of Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

The factual portion of the opinion no doubt foreshadows the likely facts to be alleged in Avon’s upcoming FCPA enforcement action – namely that Avon allegedly made improper payments in connection to obtain Chinese government approval to engage in direct selling.

The plaintiffs alleged a variety of false and misleading statements.

As to general statements in Avon’s ethics codes and corporate responsibility reports, the court ruled (consistent with prior courts) that general statements proclaiming compliance with ethical and legal standards are not material and thus not actionable.  In the words of the court:

“[A] reasonable investor would not rely on the statements … as a guarantee that Avon would, in fact, maintain a heightened standard of legal and ethical compliance.  The … statements from the Ethics Codes and the Corporate Responsibility Reports offer no assurance that Avon’s compliance efforts will be successful, and do not suggest that Avon’s compliance systems give the Company a competitive advantage over other companies.  Instead, these statements merely set forth standards in generalized terms that Avon hoped its employees would adhere to.  Such statements are not material.”

The court did conclude that other statements in Avon’s Corporate Responsibility Report addressing concrete steps that Avon has taken to ensure the integrity of its financial reporting were material, but nevertheless dismissed claims relating to those statements on other grounds such as lack of scienter.

Plaintiffs also alleged that a variety of statements concerning Avon’s business success were false and misleading “because they did not attribute Avon’s success to the bribery of foreign officials or disclose the significant risk that, once the full extent of Avon’s illegal practices become known, the Company would be exposed to criminal and regulatory investigations, significant damage to reputation, and other losses and costs.”

As to these various statements, the court concluded that such statements could be construed as misleading – and thus actionable – but nevertheless concluded that the plaintiffs failed to plead facts sufficient to give rise to a strong inference that the defendants acted with scienter in making such statements.

In pertinent part, the court concluded that “generalized allegations founded solely on an individuals’ corporate position are not sufficient to demonstrate scienter.”  Elsewhere, the court stated that “Avon’s voluntary disclosure of alleged FCPA violations .. weigh against a finding of scienter.”

Another set of plaintiffs’ allegations concerned a whistleblower letter allegedly received by Jung and how this letter allegedly gave rise to a strong inference of scienter that Jung knew of bribery allegations in its China business operations.  However, the court rejected this claim and cited other court decisions standing for the proposition that “defendants are permitted a reasonable amount of time to evaluate potentially negative information and to consider appropriate responses before a duty to disclose arises.”

While the above Avon FCPA-related civil suit was dismissed, not all suits are dismissed.

Recently, in this decision, U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey (W.D. Ark.) adopted a previous magistrate judge’s recommendation denying Wal-Mart and former CEO Michael Duke’s motion to dismiss securities fraud class action claims arising from the company’s FCPA scrutiny.

In pertinent part, the plaintiffs allege that Wal-Mart’s December 2011 FCPA disclosure (see here for prior coverage) deceived the investing public by omitting the fact that Wal-Mart learned of suspected corruption in 2005 and conducted an internal investigation in 2006 (“2005-2006 events”).

According to Plaintiff, the statement was misleading because it could have left investors with the impression that Defendants first learned of the suspected corruption in fiscal year 2012, promptly began an investigation, and then referred the matter to the DOJ and SEC.

The court agreed with the prior magistrate judge’s recommendation that Plaintiff sufficiently alleged that Defendants’ omission from their 2011 statement of the 2005-2006 events renders that statement materially misleading to a reasonable investor. According to the court, the magistrate judge “correctly noted that, without any reference to the 2005 and 2006 events, a reasonable investor could have been left with the impression that Defendants first learned of the suspected corruption in fiscal year 2012, which prompted their investigation and self-reporting to the SEC and DOJ.”

In short, the Court agreed with the magistrate judge “that it is likely that the disclosure of the 2005-2006 events would have been viewed by a reasonable investor as having significantly altered the total mix of information available.”

In the words of the court:

“[The magistrate judge] correctly identified that the issue here is whether Defendant omitted a material fact from the December 2011 statement. She then found that the statement, because of the omission, could have left a reasonable investor with the impression that Defendants first learned of the suspected corruption during fiscal year 2012—an impression that would be untrue. The Court agrees with [the magistrate judge's] conclusion that Plaintiff sufficiently alleges an actionable materially misleading statement.”

As to scienter, the court stated:

“Here, [the magistrate judge] found that Plaintiff sufficiently alleges that when Defendants made the December 2011 statement, they knew certain facts or had access to information suggesting that this statement was not entirely accurate. Plaintiff allege that, in October 2005, a top Wal-Mart attorney gave a detailed description of the suspected corruption allegations to Duke and that Duke rejected calls for a legitimate independent investigation in 2006 and instead assigned the investigation to the very office implicated in the corruption scheme. Plaintiff further alleges that Wal-Mart recognized the materiality of the 2005-2006 events because it reported these events in a June 2012 form.

Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants knew that the omission in the December 2011 statement of the 2005-2006 events was materially misleading. The information that Defendants consciously chose to omit include facts about when and how Defendants first learned of the suspected corruption and how they first responded to these allegations. It was only after the New York Times article was published that Defendants acknowledged that the suspected corruption was the subject of allegations in 2005 and that there were questions about how Defendants handled these allegations in 2005-2006. Plaintiff alleges that this shows that Defendants were concerned about exposure of their alleged mishandling of the suspected corruption. The inference that Defendants intentionally omitted certain information is just as strong, if not stronger, than any competing plausible inference. The Court agrees with [the magistrate judge's] straightforward reasoning and conclusion that Plaintiff sufficiently alleges allegations that both Defendants acted with the requisite scienter.”

Friday Roundup

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Some reading material to keep you occupied and engaged over the three-day holiday weekend.

*****

This recent Wall Street Journal article is about China’s recent antitrust crackdown, but the same could perhaps be said about China’s recent corruption crackdown against foreign multinationals doing business in China.

“The fact that regulators are going after allegedly dubious practices by multinationals isn’t what bothers trade officials at Western embassies in Beijing, even if they suspect that the probes sometimes have the effect of strengthening Chinese state-owned competitors.

What concerns them the most is the heavy-handed way that investigations are being pursued—and highly charged media coverage that makes for a troubling atmosphere for Western companies.

Foreign executives have learned two early lessons from the antitrust probes. First, the law provides little refuge. The message that the National Development and Reform Commission, the government agency that sets pricing rules, delivers in private to multinationals at the outset of a price-fixing investigation is not to bring in their foreign lawyers, according to numerous accounts by foreign executives, diplomats and lawyers themselves.

The second lesson is connected to the first: Resistance is futile. There’s scant need for lawyers when companies face a choice of either bowing to demands for quick remedies or becoming involved in a protracted wrangle with regulators in what is still a state-dominated economy. In almost every antitrust case launched so far, foreign companies have capitulated without a fight.

Voluntary price cuts of up to 20% are the norm, accompanied by board-level expressions of remorse and promises to do better.

And these cuts are offered at the very outset of investigations—and, sometimes, to get ahead of them. Chrysler described its abrupt decision to slash car-part prices as a “proactive response” to the price-fixing probe as it got under way. These price-fixing investigations have been accompanied by heated nationalistic rhetoric in the state media with antiforeign overtones. Taking down multinationals a peg plays well among the large sections of the public that view them as arrogant.”

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The always informative Debevoise & Plimption FCPA Update is particularly stellar this month.  It contains articles about the recent Wal-Mart – investor dispute in the Delaware Supreme Court as well as the recent settlement in SEC v. Jackson & Ruehlen.

Wal-Mart Delaware Action

The Wal-Mart Delaware action remains in my mind much to do about little at least as to the monumental corporate governance issues some had hoped for.

Nevertheless, the FCPA Update makes several valid points about the decision.

“In the wake of Wal-Mart, stockholders in future cases are likely to raise questions about the ways in which investigations have been conducted to see whether those questions also provide a “colorable basis” for seeking a broad range of investigative records. Companies that conduct investigations, therefore, will want to structure the investigation from the outset in a way that limits the ability of shareholders to assert that it was done improperly or otherwise may give rise to any legitimate shareholder concern. This, in turn, will place a premium on early decisions about who should conduct the review, who should supervise the review and the scope of the inquiry. Those decisions, which are generally made before any review has been conducted and based upon limited information, are sure to get close scrutiny from stockholders and should be undertaken with the utmost deliberation and care.”

SEC v. Jackson & Ruehlen

This previous post highlighted the recent settlement in SEC v. Jackson & Ruehlen and noted that the SEC, a law enforcement agency with merely a civil burden of proof, was never able to carry its burden and this was among other reasons why the SEC’s case against Jackson and Ruehlen failed – and yes – this is the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the settlement.

The FCPA Update states:

“In the realm of FCPA enforcement, where the vast majority of cases are settled before the filing and litigation of formal  charges, it is often hard to compare the outcomes of early and eve-of-trial or post-trial settlements in any meaningful way. The Noble case, however, provides  a rare opportunity to engage in such a comparison, not only because it was litigated by the SEC farther than almost any other FCPA case has been, but also because it involved both pre-and post-litigation settlements for individual defendants based on charges arising out of the same series of events.

In February 2012, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) charged three executives of Noble Corporation with violating various provisions of the FCPA and related laws in the course of their interactions with public officials in Nigeria’s energy sector. One of these defendants, Thomas O’Rourke, promptly settled with the SEC, accepting permanent injunctions against future violations as to every count on which he was charged, and agreeing to pay a $35,000 civil penalty.

The remaining individual defendants, Mark Jackson and James Ruehlen, decided to litigate. On July 2, 2014 – less than a week before trial was to start and after more than two years of litigation – the SEC settled with these two defendants. Although Jackson and Ruehlen agreed to be enjoined from future violations of the books and records provision of the FCPA, the settlements in their matters were notable in that the vast majority of the charges in the initial complaint, including the bribery charges, were conspicuously absent from the settlements, and no monetary penalties were imposed.

Although the Noble case offers just one data point, the outcomes for the three defendants raise important questions about both the difficulties of litigating these types of cases for the SEC and the potential advantages of declining pre-trial settlement for would-be defendants. In addition, the SEC’s litigation strategy in these cases highlights some possible problems with the expansive interpretation of the FCPA that the SEC and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) have advanced in recent FCPA cases. These problems, highlighted in the District Court’s refusal to accept the SEC’s interpretation on certain key issues, such as the scope of the facilitation payments exception, as well as the concrete impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gabelli decision (133 S. Ct. 1216 (2013)) in gutting large portions of the SEC’s claims for penalty relief, will doubtless affect future litigation, as well as the “market” for SEC (and in certain respects, DOJ) settlements for years to come. But at the same time, the SEC’s losses on these key issues, which drove the favorable settlements with Jackson and Ruehlen, could well incentivize the SEC to dig deeper, and earlier, for the evidence needed to sustain its burdens in FCPA matters.”

*****

The Economist states – in a general article not specific to the FCPA – that “the [U.S.] legal system has become an extortion racket.” According to the article,

“[J]ustice should not be based on extortion behind closed doors. The increasing criminalisation of corporate behaviour in America is bad for the rule of law and for capitalism.  [...] Perhaps the most destructive part of it all is the secrecy and opacity. The public never finds out the full facts of the case, nor discovers which specific people—with souls and bodies—were to blame. Since the cases never go to court, precedent is not established, so it is unclear what exactly is illegal. That enables future shakedowns, but hurts the rule of law and imposes enormous costs.”

In the FCPA context, see here for my 2010 article “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement.

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A series of informative posts here, here, here and here from Thomas Fox (FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog) regarding risk assessment.

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A good weekend to all.